Kamo no Chomei, born Kyoto in 1153 or 1155. Melancholy Japanese sage who explored inner space from a 10ft hut.
Claim to fame
The experience of lockdown has helped focus attention on that handful of explorers whose talents lay in the direction of small-scale journeys. Henry David Thoreau in Walden and Xavier de Maistre in A Journey Round My Room celebrated withdrawal, confinement and reflection instead of the expansive pleasures of vast landscapes and new horizons. You could call this genre “armchair exploration”, except one of its pioneers wouldn’t have known what an armchair was. Kamo no Chomei was a 12th-century Japanese poet and musician who suffered some kind of midlife crisis at the age of 50 and became a monk. Even monastic life was too gregarious for him and around his 60th birthday Chomei went to live alone in a tiny hut in the woods. The years he spent in this seclusion make Thoreau and de Maistre look like lightweights: de Maistre was only in lockdown for six weeks and Thoreau’s renunciation of the outside world famously involved getting his mum to do his laundry.
The intense, lapidary Hojoki is Chomei’s memoir of his years living as a hermit. Aside from Chomei, its most memorably secondary character is the hut; 10ft square and 7ft high, portable and built for self-assembly, its wooden poles and metal joints oddly foreshadow modern flatpack furniture. And given the likelihood of future lockdowns, I wouldn’t bet against the Ikea Hojoki becoming a ubiquitous feature of urban gardens, like a post-Covid Billy. The book itself is exquisite and tiny, an essay really, of a few thousand words in length. In it, Chomei ruminates about the peace he’s found in renunciation and the fact of mortality that gives every dawn and cherry blossom such poignance.
The modest details of Chomei’s existence are visible in his little book: a bracken bed, a bamboo water pipe, the mountain asters, ferns, nuts and sheaves of gleaned rice that he gathers for food. The man himself less so. An account of him at the monastery describes him looking “gaunt and unhappy” – but then he hadn’t yet found the peace he was looking for.
Chomei died in 1216 at the age of 62, most likely in his beloved hut. His little book contains one final act of renunciation: at the end he chides himself for the vanity of writing it and puts down his pen.
Chomei – like de Maistre and Thoreau – challenges our conventional understanding of exploration and offers ways to think about travel in a troubled era like ours: 3.